Thursday, April 9, 2015

Tasting craft beer at Napa Smith Brewery with Master Brewer Don Barkley: Part I, Nor Cal Road Trip

(Originally posted August 31, 2010)
Master Brewer Don Barkley in his lab at Napa Smith.
(Photo by SCCB)
So Cal Craft Beer was inspired to re-post this article, which originally appeared in (warning: clicking the link will allow your computer to be taken over by a shameless slew of ads....) because of a piece that ran on National Public Radio yesterday. The piece, "Aspiring Craft Brewers Hit The Books To Pick Up Science Chops," talks about the "trend" among brewers today to master the chemistry behind the beer they make. Don Barkley, profiled in this post, has so far been the only brewer we interviewed to show us his lab, which he said was essential for good brewing practice. Barkley graduated from the prestigious brewing program at the University of California at Davis in the 1970s. Though not mentioned in the NPR piece, Davis offers one of the oldest and most respected brewing degrees in the nation.

Napa Smith Brewery, founded a little over two years ago, is located at the gateway to Napa Valley, at the corner of California Routes 12 and 29. So Cal Craft Beer (SCCB) was recently introduced to Napa Smith's Cool Brew [see Ventura Craft Beer Examiner article on Summer Beer Tasting] and decided a visit to the brewery was a must on a recent craft beer trip to Northern California.

Napa Smith is located in an industrial park, and once SCCB found the front door, no one was home. A sign in front of a little bellhop's bell at the counter inside the nondescript door said to ring for service. Soon after the bell was rung, a bearded man in wire-frame glasses and a long silver ponytail appeared. Within moments SCCB was touring Napa Smith with the man, who turned out to be master brewer Don Barkley. "We're going to open a tasting room one of these days, but it isn't open yet," he apologized.

Barkley got a brewing degree from U.C. Davis and has been making beer since the late 1970s, when he got his start at the New Albion Brewery, the first California brewery to open after prohibition was repealed. New Albion (which is what Sir Francis Drake called California) was resurrected as the nation's first microbrewery in 1976 by craft beer legend Jack McAuliffe. Barkley went on to brew for the Mendocino Brewing Company for many years.

When the Smith Family, which also runs a winery in an adjacent facility in Napa, decided that it was high time for Napa to have its own craft brewery, they approached Barkley, who jokes, "I figured it was time for me to do something completely different, so I agreed to brew for them."

At the end of the tour, Barkley offered SCCB samples of several beers - four on tap in the brewery, and one from a bottle in the offices. The brews sampled on tap were a Pale Ale, the Cool Brew, Lost Dog (a red ale), and a wonderful porter. An Organic IPA, made with German, New Zealand, and Tasmanian organic hops, came out of a bottle.

The malt and hops in each were superbly balanced. The restrained use of hops allowed the character of each style to shine. Like the brass section of a world class orchestra, the hops were definitive, but not overbearing, lending herbal and floral notes in a brilliantly conducted symphony of flavors. 

Monday, March 10, 2014

Firestone Walker Releases a Saison

Described in the Firestone Walker press release as "a rootsy, rustic dry-hopped saison that merges Belgian tradition with West Coast style," Opal is Firestone Walker's first-ever bottled saison.

Brewmaster Matt Brynildson confesses, "We've been playing around with farmhouse ales for years, exploring and fine tuning all sorts of variations." With this recipe, the Paso Robles brewery finally decided to "make the jump."

This beer style originated in the French-speaking part of Belgium, Wallonia, where the beer was brewed in farmhouses during the cooler, less active months of the year, stored, and then served to farm workers throughout the busy summer season.

California, in its third year of drought, has been experiencing summer-like conditions for the past several months (with the exception of one big rainstorm the first weekend in March), so it probably is as good a time as any to release a summer season -- or saison, if you're speaking Walloon or French -- ale.

So Cal Craft Beer frequently recommends saisons to people -- many of whom are women -- who claim to be strictly wine drinkers, declaring that "saison is basically champagne in beer form." This has made converts of a few. According to Firestone Walker, Opal combines "lemongrass and gooseberry," with "peppery spice and fresh grain aromas." The Belgian saison yeast "creates a complex yet dry canvas with splashes of citrus and stone fruit with a bright tropical white wine finish," proving that So Cal Craft Beer is not so far off in our estimations of the style.

Brewmaster Brynildson confides, "We're usually very transparent when it comes to the ingredients of our beers. But Belgian brewers tend to be a bit cagey with the details, and that's what gives a lot of farmhouse ales their mystique." Brynildson claims there's a secret spice in Opal, but he's not divulging what it may be.

If you wanted to compare Opal to several other saisons, just to get the feel of the style, So Cal Craft Beer recommends Duvel and Saison Dupont -- both authentic Belgian saisons -- as well as The Bruery of Orange County's "Saison Rue" and North Coast Brewery's incomparable "Le Merle."

We invite your feedback. Tell us how the tasting went....

Sunday, January 19, 2014

Docking With the California Craft Beer Mothership: Sierra Nevada Brewing Company

(Originally posted May 25, 2010)
According to, "An American craft brewer is small, independent, and traditional." The limit on "small" is less than two million barrels of beer produced a year. With it's name recognition and huge facilities, Sierra Nevada Brewing Company hardly seems small. But a check of the Brewers Association confirms that Sierra Nevada (SNBC) is a member, at the "regional," or 15,000-2,000,000 barrel, level. According to the SNBC website, the brewery produces about 800,000 barrels annually.

Sierra Nevada is located in Northern California,almost two hours north of the State Capitol, in the college town of Chico. Chico is the home of California State University, Chico, founded in 1889, the second oldest campus in the CSU system (after San Jose).

Ken Grossman, founder of SNBC, graduated from Chico State with a degree in chemistry. After perfecting his homebrews, Ken first opened his own store, The Home Brew Shop, in 1976. He then began collecting the odds and ends that would eventually become SNBC, which he opened with co-founder Paul Camusi in 1980.

Charlie Papazian, fellow Beer Examiner and President of the Brewer's Association, dates the renaissance of American craft beer to 1982. In that year, the number of American breweries had fallen from a pre-Prohibition high of 800 to a nadir of less than 50. Today there are close to 1,500. SNBC's flagship beer is Sierra Nevada Pale Ale. Before such a beer existed, there was nothing in America that tasted quite as hoppy or quite as good.

The first time that the VCBE visited SNBC several years ago, it was a revelation that the brewery offered many other selections. Kellerweis (a frothy delicious hefeweizen) and Best Bitter (a copper-colored English ale) are two perennial favorites from the Taproom. Torpedo is an Extra IPA that hones in on its hop-loving target; and Bigfoot is a barleywine style ale that matches BIG malt flavor with BIG hop flavor.

On the VCBE's recent trip, to celebrate Craft Beer Week (5/17-5/23), three new ales stood out.
  • Harvest, features Yakima Valley hops shipped "wet" and added immediately to the brew kettle "while the oils and resins are still at their peak." 
  • Old Chico Crystal Wheat, brewed with two-thirds wheat malt and one-third barley malt, was surprisingly crisp and clean and refreshing.
  • Chico Estate, one of the world's only estate-made beers, features barley and hops grown entirely AT the brewery in Chico. As the SNBC website puts it, Sierra Nevada is the first brewery to develop its own terroir, which reflects the brewery's uniquely cared-for environment.
Sierra Nevada Brewing Company should be at the top of the life list of anyone who cares about craft and beer.

Thursday, August 29, 2013

Stone Brewing Company's Arrogant Brewpub Scales It Up: Chapter 2, San Diego Craft Beer SafarI

(Originally posted June 2, 2010)
As with Sierra Nevada Brewing Company (see VCBE article,"Docking..."), Stone Brewing Company is one of the most recognizable names in craft beer. And where Sierra Nevada is located in a small college town, Stone is located in a much more upscale neighborhood in North San Diego County. And just like Sierra Nevada, Stone has redefined the "brewpub" experience with its World Bistro & Gardens.

Stone's logo is a devilish looking gargoyle, which "has the power to ward off evil spirits," such as "chemical preservatives, additives & adjuncts" (Stone Website). This causes one to ponder -- is that why the Belgian monks who perfected the craft of brewing ale over the centuries named their creations things like "Duvel" (devil in the Brabantian, Ghent, and Antwerp dialect of its Flemish founders) and "Lucifer" (see VCBE article, "Backyard...")? Be that as it may, Stone brews are expertly crafted, premier examples of their types. A recent visit to the World Bistro & Gardens revealed a draft beer menu that included two of the brewery's signature beers, Arrogant Bastard Ale and Stone Smoked Porter, "On Cask with American Oak." The subtlety and complexity of these already world-class brews was enhanced by the flavors from the oak cask. "Cask Style" refers to beer that is unfiltered and unpasteurised, and conditioned (including secondary fermentation) and served from a cask without additional nitrogen or carbon dioxide pressure (see VCBE article, "Craft Beer Syzygy..." for discussion of oak cask ale).

Like human beings and most other mammals, Stone was not born fully-grown. The brewery was founded in 1996 by Steve Wagner (President and Brewmaster) and Greg Koch (CEO), a couple of L.A. guys who liked beer and kept running in to each other. Until just a few years ago, the brewery was located in the same facility now occupied by Lost Abbey/Port Brewing in San Marcos (see "Lost Abbey...").  From a humble 400 barrels of ale produced in 1996, the brewery's output in 2009 was an arrogant 98,500 barrels or over three million gallons of beer, making it the #15 craft brewcompany in the 2009 (source: Brewer's Association). Any trip to San Diego should include a visit to the Stone Brewing World Bistro & Gardens - whether you like beer or not! There's an extensive wine list and the unique indoor/outdoor setting is sublime.

Sunday, July 28, 2013

Aroma Prieta, Just Outstanding IPA, Ebony & Oak

Tasted a few new beers last night. A couple were so good that I had to tell somebody about them. So I'll interrupt my intermittent re-postings from "My Year as a Beer Blogger for" to note the quality, taste, and enjoyment I got from trying each of these new (to me) beers.

Drake's is up the Bay Area, in San Leandro, across the Bay from San Francisco and nestled between Hayward and Oakland. I remember many years ago the region had an earthquake, which came to be known as the Loma Prieta Earthquake, after a peak in the Santa Cruz Mountains to the south near the quake's epicenter.

The Drake's website says that the twin sisters, their popular Aroma Coma and Aroma Prieta, will be released on July 28, 2013. Verdugo Bar, where I sipped the Prieta last night, apparently jumped the release date by at least a day. Here's how Drake's describes the Prieta:

“Shake out from Aroma Coma with Aroma Prieta. Aroma Coma’s sister beer mirrors its twin starting with primarily American 2-row barley malt and a touch Caramalt for body. From there, we turn things upside down. This time, Prieta leaves behind Coma’s North American hops for some Southern Hemisphere hop action. New Zealand hops Nelson Sauvin, Pacific Jade, and Motueka and Aussie hop Helga in the double dry-hop give Aroma Prieta huge notes of tropical fruit, gooseberries, and grapefruit. Like Coma but different: breathe in these hops and enjoy.”

We definitely got the beautiful floral aroma; not much grapefruit or tropical fruit, and we don't know what gooseberries taste like, but we also picked up a kind of nutty-oily flavor at the back of the palate - almost like toasted sesame. Distinctive, and not in a bad way.

Elsewhere on these pages (Beer Advocate's Top 100 West Coast Beers), I mention that I was not aware of Kern River Brewing. Well, I got my chance last night to sample one of their brews for the first time, the confidently named "Just Outstanding IPA." It was good, a bit more floral than the Prieta, and perhaps with a hint of grapefruit. The Alstrom brothers, who founded Beer Advocate, describe the beer this way, and I concur:

LOOK: Dirty peach; thick, creamy white head

SMELL: Intensely floral, orange grove, catty, mint, hemp seed, vegetal, clean alcohol, cookie dough

TASTE: Piney hop, chocolate mint, fresh citric fruits, bready malt backbone, warming alcohol, very juicy, hemp, faint cattiness, yeast, fresh-cut grass, aspirin, caramel, hoppy finish

“Just Outstanding” and “The Name Says It All” might look cool on a label, but it's a ballsy stretch and honestly, we simply expected much more. In a world saturated with IPAs, this one is actually “just good,” which ain't bad either, but it ain't all that.

Finally, we ended our happy beer adventure with a new (for us) offering from one of our favorite breweries, The Bruery in Placentia, CA: Ebony and Oak, a stout aged in bourbon barrels. The craft beer grapevine tells me that The Bruery crowd-sourced the graphic design for the label through, and the winner was graphic designer Eric Sena, who describes himself as a homebrewer, cyclist, and good listener, as well as graphic designer on his Twitter bio.

Tuesday, June 4, 2013

Lost Abbey Craft Beer in San Marcos

San Diego Safari 1

(Originally posted at Ventura Craft Beer Examiner, May 28, 2010)
So Cal Craft Beer, Tomme Arthur (right) and friend
On a recent afternoon, we wandered into the Lost Abbey. The first thing you think, driving into the parking lot of the non-descript office park in San Marcos, is "This can't be the right place." And then you notice that the parking lot is jammed. "What's going on here?" you ask. Further inspection reveals that it's just a typical Friday afternoon at the LostAbbey/Port Brewing Facility in San Marcos. The place is packed, and there's more beer available on tap than you can shake a stick at. Everybody's standing - 10 deep - and everyone is absolutely digging what they're drinking.

In a space formerly occupied by a much more humble Stone Brewery (about which more in a future post), Lost Abbey's Tomme Arthur is holding court at a long bar opening out onto the aforementioned parking lot. Here, one can find some of the best beer on the planet.Way back in 1997, garage-brewer Arthur was hired by Vince Marsaglia of Pizza Port in Solana Beach, CA,  to brew Belgian-style ales, such as the Dubbel Overhead Abbey Ale. Multiple GABF Gold Medals later, Arthur has arguably become one of the most renowned "craft brew meisters" in America. What's GABF stand for, you ask? GreatAmerican Beer Festival, that's all. And there are many other laurels, as well.

Meanwhile, back in the non-descript San Marcos office park, there is much to marvel at and savor. One entire section of the Lost Abbey warehouse is piled high with recycled wine and whiskey casks holding some of Arthur's most treasured elixirs. We sidle up to the bar with an old friend of Arthur's, and immediately two pints of Arthur's Lost and Found Abbey "Double" Style Beer (with raisins and a sweet malt finish) appear. It's clear that this beer is Arthur's nod to the Trappist Abbey of Westmalle's (Belgium) "dubbel," a strong version of a brown beer.

Without too much prompting, Arthur disappears -- his daughter Sydney entertains guests with dayglo Playdough sharks and stamps -- and reappears again with taster glasses of Devotion. This dry-hopped blonde ale with a dry hop-driven finish is Arthur's hommage to the great Belgian Trappist St.Sixtus Abbey's Westvleteren Blonde ale. It is sublime.

The Lost Abbey has been found, along with the divine inspiration of Tomme Arthur's incomparable craft. The tasting room is open 1-6 Monday and Tuesday, 1-9 Wednesday and Friday, Thursday 1-8, on Fridays, Saturday 11:30-8, and Sunday 12-7. This is a MUST for the serious beer connoisseur.

Tuesday, May 14, 2013

Craft Beer Cultural Exchange: East Meets West

Not long ago, So Cal Craft Beer traveled to the New England Seashore, with stops in Connecticut, Cape Cod, New Hampshire, and Maine.

Sipping a Sam Adams Oktoberfest
in October with friends at Sundancers
in West Dennis, Cape Cod
Part of our mission was to share the good news of California Craft Beer with those who may not yet have seen the light. The other part of our mission was to discover what New England has to offer in the way of craft beer.

The mission was not without its flaws: almost all of our California offerings had to be made in the form of bottled beer, which favors breweries of a certain size and scale to pull off. We couldn't share esoteric casks or firkins from Ladyface, but we were VERY happy to be able to share some of our favorites from Firestone-Walker, Bear Republic, Ballast Point, Sierra Nevada, and Lagunitas (see photo, above).

I'd like to make a special mention of Philadelphia-based distributor Origlio Beverage, who makes these beers and others, like Russian River and Great Divide, available all over the Eastern Seaboard.

New England Standouts
Ipswitch and Clown Shoes (links to a great interview with the Head Brewer, Dan Lipke) appear to be separate brands under the umbrella of Mercury Brewing in Ipswitch, Massachusetts. A current favorite from Clown Shoes is Muffin Top, a 10% ABV Belgian-style Tripel IPA hybrid -- just the right balance of fizz, hops, and rich flavor.

Cisco from Nantucket has room for improvement, Smuttynose from New Hampshire can do no wrong, and Magic Hat from Vermont is a contender. We were introduced to Shipyard from Maine at a beer tasting on the West Coast back in 2010 -- they've got pretty good distribution througout the country. Their Pugsley's XXXX IPA is over the top (and we're fans of BIG IPAs, like Ballast Point's Sculpin), but their milder beers, such as Old Thumper, are eminently worthy -- and because Maine and blueberries are as synonymous as Maine and lobster, it's good to see they've got a Pugsley's Smashed Blueberry, which is on the Porter/Scotch Ale end of the spectrum -- delicious as a dessert beer on a cool night.

Thanks to Tim and Brucie Wright (New Hampshire), Peter Wright, Lee Stivers, and Missy Engelhard (Maine), Don and Julie Macnary (Cape Cod), and Tom and Madora Koehne and Andrew and Macgregor Onderdonk (Connecticut) for hosting and participating in numerous tastings, which were all a lot of fun.